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Baseball's youngest legend; at the tender age of 21, the Mets' phenomenal Dwight Gooden is being touted as the best young pitcher in the history of the game.

BASEBALL'S YOUNGEST LEGEND

Two dozen talent scouts had roosted in the bleachers at the Hillsborough High ball field in Tampa to watch the school's gifted starting pitcher. But the youngester proved unable to control his throws that late-winter afternoon; before the first inning was half over, the coach, Billy Reed, decided to change pitchers.

The scouts began to leave. Meanwhile, Reed turned and waved his sleek left fielder to the mound. As the tall right-handler began warming up, the thunder-crack of ball striking catcher's mitt filled the air. To a man, the scouts stopped in their tracks and hurried back.

"They had never seen Dwight before," Reed recalls. Perched on a milk crate on that same field, there baseballs clutched easily in his left hand, the veteran coach allows a small smile to tickle his face. "After that, they all started trailing after him."

Dwight Gooden, the unaffected star of the New York Mets, has had the sports world trailing after him ever since. "You know 'The Natural,'" says the Mets' pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre, referring to the movie taken from the Bernard Malamud baseball novel. "Dwight's probably the closest thing to a natural that we have in the game today."

Stottlemyre's assessment reflects the consensus of a sport still abuzz over Gooden's arrival. At age 17, following his senior year in high school, the 6'2" Gooden was the Mets' top choice in the annual free-agent draft. Promising as Gooden was, four teams picked other players first.

At age 18 the minor-leaguer struggled to a three-wins, three-losses start with Lynchburg in the Class A Carolina League. There he had what was for him a unique experience. His coach chewed him out in mid-game for thinking os much that he was "pitching scared." Angry at the coach, but receptive to the advice, Gooden responded by striking out the next time batters he faced. He went on to win 15 consecutive games and to set a league record: 300 strike-outs in 191 innings.

At age 19 Gooden was invited to the Mets' 1984 spring-training camp, common practice with bubbng prospects. He was given number 64, indicative of his status as a nonroster player unlikely to make the squad. But by season's end, only two years out of high school, Gooden had won 17 games and the National League rookie-of-the-year honors. His 276 strike-outs, the highest total ever recorded by a first-year player, led the majors.

Last season, at age 20, following one of the most masterly performances in baseball's 116-year history, Gooden was unanimously voted the Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher. The youngest Cy Young recipient ever led the majors in wins (24, against 4 losses), strike-outs (268, virtually one per inning), and earned-run average (1.53 allowed per game, the lowest figure in nearly 20 years).

Along the way Gooden enjoyed superlative stretches unimaginable for most pitchers: 14 wins in a row; 31 straight shutout innings; and 49 consecutive innings without yielding an earned run. Equally important, Gooden led the way as the Mets stayed in the pennant race until the last weekend of the season.

At age 21, the msot famous Dwight since Eisenhower is one of sport's most watched performers. Predictably, everyone is cashing in, including Gooden, whose income from his playing contract ($1.32 million) and endorsements may exceed $3 million this year. Jim Neader, his agent, is also working on patenting Gooden's nickname, "Dr. K." (The letter serves as baseball shorthand for strike-out. Gooden has been called "Doctor" or "Doctor D," for Dwight, since he was seven.)

Last year the Mets drew approximately 5,000 additional fans, at an average ticket price of $7.50, to each home game the prodigy started. On the NBC "Game of the Week" the Nielsen ratings went up half a point (about 440,000 viewers) when Gooden pitched.

When Gooden gets two strikes on a batter at the Mets' Shea Stadium, fans clamor by the thousands for a strike-out, which they cheer as the pitching equivalent of a home run. "You can't help but hear it," admits Gooden. Gooden.

But Gooden is more concerned with securing outs and treating his arm respectfully. "You should not only pace yourself, but not try doing anything spectacular that's not you," he says quietly. "You should just try to be yourself. Do the things within your style that you've been doing, not try to be like somebody else, or live up to somebody else' standards. Just go out and do the best you can."

Gooden's success did not quite come overnight. At 21 he is an 18-year veteran of the game, his father says. "I grew up in ball and so did he," explains Dan Gooden, who in 1956 forsook Georgia farm life to move to Florida. In rural Albany, Georgia, Dan had learned the game from his father, a 6'5" semipro pitcher who, Dan Says, threw even harder than Dwight throws.

At three years old Dan's boy was playing catch with members of the Tampa Dogers; he rolled the ball to them because he hadn't yet learned to throw. Bofore long he yearned to play for his father. His idol was a Detroit star, Al Kaline.

"That was his dream, to play pro ball. Mine too," Dan Gooden says, "That's all he ever did, play ball. No paper route, no nothing. Just play ball. That's why people say he's so advanced for his age, because baseball is all he knew."

When Dwight was 11, he began playing Little League ball under the tutelage of Lucius Leonard, a former Tampa, Dogers player who taught him to throw a curve. In Gooden's first outing, he struck out 13 batters. He later play for his father in senior league on a team that won a national title.

By his junior year in high school, Gooden "really didn't need much coaching," Billy Reed says. "We refined him a little, but not to the point that we changed his mechanics [pitching delivery]. His mechancis were so good."

From the first, his poise and self-control made him what the Mets' general manager, Frank Cashen, Calls "the exception to all the rules as we know them." Consequently, Gooden is unlikely to suffer the same hardships that befall lesser players. "Getting to the ballpark is the only thing he's got to worry about," says Al Jackson, the Mets' minor-league pitching coach.

The Mets' field manager, Dave Johnson, had a hard time persuading Cashen to promote Gooden to the majors after teen-ager had spent only one full season in the minors. But Gooden's rare gifts wore down the resistance of the cautious GM. "The two things that he had that we don't see in young pithcers is complete command and complete composure," Cashen says. "He had command not only throwing the ball hard, but he knew where to throw it, and he had a major-league curve ball right away. He had composure in that he didn't let a setback or a based hit or something defeat him. He was able to shrug it off and go on."

Others warn fretfully of pitfalls facing the young superstar. Already he has missed banquets honoring him in Tampa and in New York and has shown up late for appointments and practices. "As fast as he went up, he can come down just as fast," Dan Gooden says. "He understoods that. I talk to him about that all the time: Don't ever let yourself get too big."

Mets' executives have ordered that Gooden be protected somewhat from the press. Access to Gooden is limited to a mass press conference held the day after he pitches. Concerned in part about his frequently terse answers, the club also paid a media consultant to instruct Gooden and several others on how to handle the ever present reporters (with whom he's unfailingly polite).

Gooden is representing Diet Pepsi, Nike, Toys 'R' Us. Spalding gloves, Kellogg2s Corn Flakes, and Polaroid; collaborating on two autobiographies; and appearing in a music video. Neader insists, "I don't think he does that much at all. We could do ten times as much and saturate the market if we wanted to. We just don't do it."

Gooden, remarkably unchanged by all the commotion, still calls his father after pitching a game and dwells on the details if he loses. During spring training he finds time to attend virtually every one of Hillsborough High's games. He still lives in Tampa with his parents, in a new house the bought for them, though he plans to move out this fall when he marries Carlene Pearson, whom he met at church four years ago.

As Gooden emerged from an interview session this spring, Johnson called out, "Don't let baseball interfere with anything you've got going." Given Gooden's love for the game, that's unlikely to happen.

A much more pressing concern will be the chorus already comparing him with the greatest pitchers baseball has seen. "It makes me feel weird," Gooden admits. "That's like every time your take the field you've got to win, you've got to strike out ten batters and almost pitch a shutout."

Then again, considering Gooden's accomplishments to date, it's difficult not to expect greatness each time he takes the mound. As this season began, he had struck out ten or more batters in 26 of his 66 major-league starts. Eleven times he held the opposition scoreless for an entire game. Only once last season, and nine times overall, did he give up more than three earned runs in a single game. He average more than one strike-out per inning. During his career, he has fanned more batters than have reached based on hits and walks combined.

"He's way ahead of any young pitcher in the history of the game,"
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Jacobs, Barry
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1986
Words:1627
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